By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
We, here in Mercer County, have grown complacent.
Last weekend’s District 10 Class A quarterfinals sweep showed the south’s strength. The downside, though, is that this week’s semifinals signal the season’s end for a pair of county contingents.
Friday night at Hickory High’s Hornet Stadium, Sharpsville and West Middlesex meet for a 3rd consecutive postseason — though not in the title tilt as during the past 2 years when the Blue Devils delivered back-to-back championships.
“I know we came in fourth (in Region 1) and they came in third, so it’s ironic. But that’s just how the cards fell,” explained Sharpsville skipper Paul Piccirilli. “But this is now probably our biggest rival over the last 10 years. It used to be Kennedy (Catholic), but West Middlesex has taken over. And we know each other so well.”
“Knowing the competition we have here, everybody in Mercer County has a good football program, every staff is top-notch,” mused Middlesex mentor Ed Roberson. “We sharpen each other down here, and the teams that do make the postseason are battle-tested from who they played all year.
“So if you’re healthy enough, chances are that somebody from our region is going to win the district,” Roberson related, emphasizing, “but it’s not easy. Week to week, there are no easy games; you have to be ready to play every week, especially in the playoffs. And every week, going forward, is more difficult, more stressful.
This is about the Blue Devils’ defense — literally and figuratively.
Sharpsville (7-4) is seeking the second D-10 3-peat in program annals. To advance to this juncture it’s been about the Blue Devils denying opposing offenses. Sharpsville has surrendered only 9.9 points and 178.9 yards per game.
“Personally, I knew going in we had the talent to win again; the only point was trying to mold 11 new guys into a team,” explained Piccirilli, who admitted, “Unfortunately it took longer offensively. But defensively, we’re as good as we’ve ever been on that side of the ball. And special teams kept us up, too.”
In week 6 the Big Reds roared to a 12-0 2nd-stanza lead on Eric Lucich’s 64-yard scoring sprint and Trey Staunch’s 1-yard plunge. But the Blue Devils did damage by scoring the game’s final 20 points, including two Tyler Wansack TD runs. Ben BuCher’s 60-yard punt return kick-started the comeback.
Wansack reinjured his ankle in the week leading up to Sharpsville’s 31-7 elimination of Eisenhower, and will not be available, Piccirilli said.
Related Roberson, “We’ve been bitten by the injury bug. ... We’re not 100-percent healthy, but we’re healthier this week than we were last week (in a 46-32 win over Cochranton).”
Of note in the earlier Sharpsville-Middlesex meeting: The Big Reds recorded a 272-168 edge in total yards, led by Lucich’s 83 yards rushing and Staunch’s 14-for-21, 154-yard passing performance. However Middlesex (7-4) made 3 miscues.
“Staunch is definitely the key,” Piccirilli said. “He’s a big kid, sees the field pretty well. And Lucich runs well, (Chandler) Tyillian, too. They have a lot of good athletes. But the key for us defensively is to mix it up — when we’re comin’ (on the blitz) and when we’re not comin’. And with our offense doing better, that will be a key to controlling the ball and not giving (Staunch) as many chances.
“Turnovers will be a key in deciding the game,” Piccirilli pronounced.
Echoed Roberson, “The team that wins will be the one that defenses the run and runs the ball the best.”
Ironically, a loss at Lakeview (19-13 in week 8) served as Sharpsville’s tipping point, Piccirilli said.
“We were down 19-13 with a couple minutes to go and had the ball on about the 40 with a chance to win the game,” he recalled. “But after that game we (Sharpsville coaches) saw a different team from that point on, one that feels they can win any game.
“With our offense (20.7 ppg., 245.7 ypg.) finally catching up in full gear, we feel we have as good a chance as any other team out there,” Piccirilli added, noting frosh Luke Henwood will be Sharpsville’s starting signal-caller, in place of junior Nick Henwood.
On a nightly norm the Big Reds have recorded a 23.6 to 19.4 scoring margin and 305 to 242.3 edge in total yards.
“Coach ‘Pic’ and his staff are very creative in the things they do, so I have to make sure my kids are ready for what they see Friday night,” Roberson said. “We have to stop their running attack. If we limit their ability to run, we put ourselves in better position defensively to prevail. Offensively, we have to continue to have the running success that we’ve had. Lucich has been on a roll, and Tyillian, as well.
“They’ve sort’ve gotten away from some of the basic things they do,” Roberson said in assessing Sharpsville. “They’ve made some adjustments, and we have to match those adjustments and try to anticipate what they’re going to do.”
With Roberson now Middlesex’s mentor, Piccirilli was posed with the question: Does that present his Devils with a different dynamic, or is Sharpsville attempting to defeat a program already in place?
“Ed’s been there. He was their defensive coordinator. And, basically, they run the same offense, with a few different players,” Piccirilli said.
“In some ways, yes. ... But game planning-wise, not really,” Roberson responded to the question. “I’m still the defensive coordinator, so we have the same, basic approach to games that we’ve had in the past. And working with (former head coach Jason McElhaney, now Hickory’s offensive coordinator), he and I were on the same page.
“Having the ‘weight’ on my shoulders, being responsible for the program, that’s different,” Roberson related, “but in terms of how I approach the game, that hasn’t changed that much.”
It’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt, but not so with this Shenango Valley rivalry.
“I enjoy playing them. It’s a good, clean rivalry, not with players yakking it up back and forth,” Piccirilli noted. “It’s good for the fans, and the other semifinal (Lakeview-Mercer) will be a heckuva game, too.”
“When you play Sharpsville you’ve gotta prepare for them,” Roberson reflected. “You know what’s gonna happen, but there are all kinds of things they can do. Their kids are tough and scrappy and come very well prepared. The challenge,” Roberson said, “is to sort of match Coach ‘Pic’ and his staff. Knowing that they’re one of the better staffs around, you’d better bring your ‘A-game,’ and even if you bring your ‘A-game’ it’s not gonna be easy.”
“The toughest thing is our bracket itself,” Piccirilli continued. “Farrell could’ve easily been where we are. That’s a nice team, but they just fell apart down the stretch due to certain circumstances.
“And our (region) will be really unbelievable next year with Wilmington and possibly Greenville and Rey-nolds,” he noted. “Who knows what this is coming to? We’ll just take it one day at a time like everybody else, and we’ll take every opportunity to win and see where it goes.”
“It’s been an exciting year. We’ve always had these hopes and expectations, but reality is hitting a little bit ... it’s all beginning to sink in,” Roberson related. “My coaching staff, I’m really proud of them. They’ve put in a lot of work, worked very hard, seven days a week, since August. And the kids, I can’t say enough about them. They’re talented and they work hard and have done everything we’ve asked them to do.
“I’m enjoying the ride,” Roberson admitted, adding, “I hope it lasts another couple weeks. ... We’re excited and focused. Our kids are excited. They seem to be on a mission.”
The game will be broadcast on WPIC (790 AM) with Ryan Briggs and Chris Burtch on mike.